A Georgian-Gothic Style church building sits behind the green trees on 18th Avenue, between 83rd and 84th Streets in Bensonhurst. Beside it there is a lawn, some parking, and a brick-red house with dark-grey roof. Outside the gate a big sign announces an upcoming thrift sale . This church has a history spanning more than 339 years, but it’s been struggling to survive since 2003.
The story of New Utrecht Reformed Church can be traced back to 1677, when Dutch residents met in each other’s homes to worship. In 1700, they built the original octagonal church and cemetery at the corner of 16th Avenue and 84th Street. When the original building started to fall apart, a new structure called Sanctuary Building was constructed two blocks away in 1828. Both the church and the cemetery are listed in the National Register of Historic Places due to their historical importance.
As a landmark of the city, New Utrecht Reformed Church played a part in the history of Dutch Brooklyn. The old building and the cemetery were constructed when the Dutch were settling into New York.
The building also witnessed the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War and was used as a hospital, then a prison, and then a riding school under the occupation by the British. “Three hundred and thirty nine years now the church has been, it’s amazing in America. This is a 100 years before George Washington,” said Susan Hanyen, Vice President of the consistory, which is the governing board of the church.
Rita Hollenga was born in Holland, came to the U.S. in 1957, and now she’s the only remaining Dutch member of the church. “I’ve been here more years than I was in Holland,” Hollenga said.” It’s my home church.”
Apart from the religious services, the church has also been serving the neighborhood as a community center for decades. The church has been sponsoring the same Boy Scout troop since 1910. It also sponsors a Girl Scout troop and provides services for Alcoholics Anonymous. “We do reaching out to the neighborhood,” said Carol Dickert who is a member of the consistory and who has had a 40-year relationship with the church community. “We want to stay relevant.”
The front door of the church is kept locked, but if walking in from a wooden side door, there are new, beautifully painted barrel-vaulted ceilings and magnificent stained glass windows. There are also holes here and there. “Some of them are test holes to see the inner structure and strength behind the walls,” Hanyen said. “Old buildings have secrets. The most difficult part is that no one knows how it was built originally.”
In 2003, the church received a restructuring engineering report suggesting that the building was not stable. The consistory began a project to repair it with Seaboard Construction, starting in 2006. By 2015, they completed the first two phases of the project, including steel reinforced trusses, a new roof, new cornices, new ceilings, repaired upper walls, and more, but they depleted their funds before the whole restoration process could be finished. Hanyen sent out what she called a “begging letter” to everyone she could think of who could be connected to this church in September 2015, inviting them to visit the work in progress in the sanctuary.
“We still need at least $350,000 to complete most of the required work…please choose to breathe new life into the Sanctuary building,” the letter read.
New Utrecht Reformed Church has received some help. The architect working on this project donated back 20 percent of his last bill, and the consistory has received about $40,000 from donors in the form of personal gifts, yet it is still not enough to cover the total budget.
New Utrecht Reformed Church belongs to the Reformed Church in America, a mainline reformed protestant denomination in Canada and the United States. The church used to have hundreds of members in 1940s, but the number started to decline as Bensonhurst began to change. Now it has about 50 church members.
The consistory, responsible for the upkeep of the church, has been trying hard to raise more funds. They’ve organized a series of events, including tours of the sanctuary, and a pet blessing, in which residents bring their pets to have them blessed by the minister. They are also organizing the thrift sale, to be held on October 15. “It’s heartbreaking but we’re working on it,” Dickert told The Brooklyn Ink.
The church services are now held in the parish house, but the consistory is eager to open the sanctuary for use as soon as they make a couple of cosmetic changes, even though it’s not completed.
“Because if you keep a church door closed, then the church will close,” Hanyen said.